Between 1964 and 1973, in an offshoot of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military dumped 4 billion pounds of explosives on Laos, making it the most heavily bombed place on earth. Up to 30 percent of those bombs did not detonate, and they remain in the Laotian soil today as UXO—unexploded ordnance—contaminating more than 35,000 square miles of the country.
When I first visited Laos in 1998, I knew this history—probably knew it better than most Americans alive today. But it wasn’t until I returned to the central Laotian town of Phonsavanh, in 2005, that I began to see the devastating, ongoing effects of that bombing campaign. That year, I met a young boy named Bich in the Phonsavanh hospital. He was injured when something in the ground exploded while he was hoeing the family fields. The accident had fractured his arm and dismantled his chin. His mother, in tears, told me she had known the dangers of digging, but what could the family do? They needed food.
Laotian land remains littered with 40-year-old American bombs. And now, despite years of bomb-clearance work, evidence suggests that the UXO accident rate actually is rising. Precise numbers do not exist but experts, victims and witnesses all say explosions frequently occur as a growing population clears more land for farming and development. According to the most thorough UXO accident survey available, published by the Lao National Regulatory Authority, more than 20,000 Laotians have been killed and maimed since the end of war. But even the authors admit that survey is incomplete and the numbers are likely very low.
As villagers clear new land for planting, the clearing fires cause buried bombs to explode. Also, as metal becomes more valuable amid an international shortage, villagers gamble their lives on the chance to dig up valuable bomb scrap. Sometimes they find whole bombs. The Laotian government’s admittedly incomplete statistics say that at least one person dies every day from a UXO accident.
The story is grim. That is why it must be told: It’s a grim story of American forgetfulness that recurs daily across Laos.
This collection of photos was selected for Review Santa Fe 2010. Another selection was awarded First Place for Outstanding Photography by the Society of Environmental Journalists in 2012. To see more of my work on UXO in Laos, click here.